Towards a new normal?

Sunday 21 June 2020

Over the last fortnight we have talked more about the Black Lives Matter protests than Covid 19. Not only does this suggest that we are starting to move away from an existence dominated by the corona virus, it also invites reflection upon the world we want to build, as we emerge from many weeks of Lockdown. Do we want life to go ‘back to normal‘ or do we want to create a ‘better normal’?

This week, major British cities continue to see Black Lives Matter marches and the appropriateness of statues and popular culture to the history we want to learn from and value is debated widely. Poverty is also on the news agenda. Manchester United striker, Marcus Rashford, drives a government U-turn over the issue of summer holiday food vouchers for our most disadvantaged children. Twitter takes the decision to permanently ban far-right commentator Katie Hopkins from its platform, for violating the hateful conduct policy. Could we really be heading for a more tolerant and fair society? Whilst I hope so, I fear we may still have a fight on our hands. The ruling classes seem unlikely to share their power toys quite this easily! One battle-ground this week, footballers and MPs, illustrates the challenge.

Small boy and I rejoice over the restart of the football premier league. We order a take-away and tune in for the match, where players wear shirts that display a blue heart badge in tribute to the NHS and on the reverse, in place of names, the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’. Ahead of kick-off, we admire the dignity with which opposing teams observe a minute’s silence, in honour of front line health workers, and then also ‘take the knee’ to show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. But it appears that Boris’ boys are not ready to welcome this group of sportsmen into the ranks of influencers any time soon.

Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, dismisses the knee gesture as ‘a symbol of subjugation and subordination’ originating in Game of Thrones. And who can forget the criticism rained upon football clubs, and no other profession, by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, for using the Goverment’s furlough scheme to pay staff?

Given the sacrifices that many people are making, including some of my colleagues in the NHS who have made the ultimate sacrifice… I think the first thing that Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution, take a pay cut and play their part.

By contrast, the chief executive of NHS Charities Together has not only welcomed Premier League players getting together to help the service cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic but has also noted that

This is what footballers have always been like….What they wanted to do here is come together as players and say ‘NHS, we’re rooting for you, we’re behind you’, and hopefully that can inspire other people to do the same.”

Marcus Rashford epitomises the courage of one young footballer to use his platform to enact positive change in society. So, why the reluctance of our leaders to recognise the contribution that the wider footballing community can undoubtedly make towards a fairer Britain? Many commentators point to class and race issues. At least a third of Premier League players are from BAME backgrounds, well above the UK average. Additionally,  Sutton Trust report found that only 5% of British footballers went to private school. The report investigated the educational backgrounds of ‘Britain’s leading people’ – those considered to have influence and prestige. Out of all the sectors, football was the only one where you were less likely to have gone to a private school than the national average. (Source: Novaria Media).

It is food for thought, Rashford describes as our systems as,

not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked

Is it the case that, even if you do, our ruling parties will view you as a group less worthy of respect than their more expensively educated peer group? Or see you as a threat to their power and influence and hence an easy target for scapegoating?

As we emerge from Lockdown, the Black Lives Matter movement has momentum, and the ‘undeserving poor’ have some high profile champions. For many, our society seems kinder, united around better values and ready for change. Do any of our leaders however share this conviction, or will they instead want us to steer us back to their normal. Time will tell…

When the seagulls …

Saturday 25 January 2020

“When the seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea,”  (Eric Cantona 1995)

I awake to the news that Twenty-five years have passed since Cantona launched himself into the crowd at Selhurst Park” What a story that was! Opinions raged at the time, and still do today, about the jaw-dropping incident and its legacy for football. But one fact is indisputable. Following the kick, that quote and his subsequent return to Manchester United, Eric Cantona secured his place as a legend at Old Trafford.

I am, nominally these days, a Manchester United supporter. In 1995 however things were very different. It was the height of the ‘ABU’ (Anyone But United) era, and the relentless vitriol directed at my home-town team had stirred the tribalism in my veins to a fever pitch. I was a young teacher in Leeds and it seemed that there was no place in the land that Manchester United hatred was stronger. My housemate referred to us as ‘SCUM’. The Saturday night streets regularly echoed to a chorus of ridiculously offensive football chants about the Munich Air Disaster. It was vile and it had transformed me into an obsessive fan. I was glued to radio commentaries. I was encylopedic on fixtures, league positions and transfers. I paced the kitchen like a restless panther on match days. I begged my brothers for a loan of their season tickets. And in the centre of all of this … was Eric. Transferred from Leeds to United in 1992, the charismatic Frenchman had quickly become the talisman. The footballing magician who turned Alex Ferguson’s squad from a good team … into a great team.

So the Kung-Fu kick, and the (fully-deserved) ban were tense times. The seagull’s quote, uttered at a press conference when his custodial sentence, was replaced by community service, left me non- plussed. The 1995 title slipped away and, if media reports were to be believed, it seemed that Eric would too. However, he did return, it’s alleged in response to a piece of managerial brilliance by Alex Ferguson. Whatever the reason, he strutted back onto the Old Trafford turf, lead the team to the 1996 title and the rest, as they say, is history.

I love to read about Eric, I loved the Ken Loach film ‘Looking for Eric’ and a couple of years ago Small Boy and I got to see Eric! The occasion was a Soccer Aid Match at Old Trafford…

Oh Soccer Aid – another occasion when I tried to compensate Small Boy for the daily penance of living in a house of females. We saw the match advertised on the TV and spontaneously bought tickets. We asked loads of other people to come along but got no takers and so, one soggy Spring afternoon, we set off by ourselves. I was pretty nervous and justifiably so, for we were innocents abroad. The traffic, as we approached the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ , was indescribable and eventually we abandoned our car on a dodgy side street, paying some shadowy figure £10 to the privilege of parking on his drive.

Please don’t argue with him Mum!” pleaded Small Boy.

But even I knew better on this occasion. Not entirely sure if I would ever see the car again, we followed the hordes to the stadium. The atmosphere was electric and, buoyed with enthusiam, I bought Small Boy a flag. As we set off for our seats however the security guard had other ideas. With barely concealed contempt he pointed at the flag, shook his head and flicked his eyes towards…a mountain of flag sticks. All fingers and thumbs we added our pole to the pile and then, giggling slightly with our limp piece of flag cloth made our way onto the terraces. By this time, I thought ‘in for a penny…’ and we gleefully blew my hard-earned cash on overpriced junk food and unhealthy drinks. It was great… a true bit of mother-son bonding!

The match was terrific too, a fully star-studded cast of celebrities, Olympic athletes and former footballing greats and then… mid way through the second half a slightly portly but unmistakeable figure ran onto the pitch, Cantona! There was a second of stunned silence before stadium erupted with joy and emotion – I actually saw several grown men cry. We felt for that moment, fully part of the great history of our great team. So I am not condoning his actions but tonight I shall raise a can of…Becks Blue … to Eric. For the memories, for the titles, for the sparkle of magic dust … and for that Soccer Aid match for me and my boy.

“If ever there was one player, anywhere in the world, that was made for Manchester United, it was Cantona. He swaggered in, stuck his chest out, raised his head and surveyed everything as though he were asking: ‘I’m Cantona. How big are you? Are you big enough for me?’” Sir Alex Ferguson.